Between performance and theater

Vito Acconci passed away last Friday, the 28th, at 77. Acconci’s performances were partly responsible for my interest in staged photography, which then developed into an interest in durational performance, again inspired by Acconci, Tehching Hsieh and Marina & Ulay’s performances. When I heard the news about Acconci’s death I remembered something he once said about Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at Moma. According to Acconci, most of what was happening during that exhibition was not performance, instead he thought they were theatrical pieces. Because I tend to agree with him (though not regarding the performance The Artist is Present), I often think about what separates performance from theater and, in that process, I also question whether these characteristics are merely descriptive or if they entail an evaluative measure.

For me, the question that always triggers this discussion concerns the temporal aspect of the performance: What is its duration? Is it unique or is it a repetition? But these questions tend to follow the million dollar question regarding performance (or whatever art form, for that matter), that is: What defines a performance? or What is its most distinctive quality?

I haven’t been doing any reading on the subject, it’s just something that I think about, now and then, particularly when a performance hits the stage for the second or third time. And yes, I immediately become a little frustrated when that happens, as if something sacred had just been profaned. But it’s not performance, itself, that is violated or corrupted when repetition takes over. Instead, the word “performance” is and I question the necessity of attaching such a label to something that has as such an important historical value. What I mean is: performance or, as some like to call it, the art of action, is, in its nature, anti-systemic. Its ephemeral nature defies the art market, the nominal structure, the value systems, the necessity of the white cube and, above all, it revolutionizes the place of the spectator and his/her importance to the making of an artwork. I understand everything evolves, and so do art genres. That’s the way it is and I don’t think we should fight evolution per se. But should we keep using the term performance to describe something that has none of its most important characteristics, namely: being anti-systemic and being ephemeral?

When Acconci addressed Abramovic’s The Artist is Present he said the following: “She turned herself into a sculpture, into an act of endurance: the repetition, the constancy, turned her action into habit: the constant presence of an audience turned her so-called performance into theater.” Although I think durational performance is about a sort of change that, undeniably, has to do with repetition, I also think that this repetition is very different from the repetition at play when someone re-stages a performance, as was the case in Marina’s retrospective of some of her former works. The question is: is a performance still true if it is performed by someone other than the original performer? Can a performance be interpreted? I think the answer is quite clear: it can’t. Both its anti-systemic and its ephemeral nature will be lost in that process, so why insisting on re-staging it and call it a performance? Is the art world that greedy? Are the artists that vain?   

Let’s try for another example. Last month, in Portugal, a performance made a fuss in Lisbon: Héctor Zamora‘s (b. Mexico, 1974) Ordem e Progresso (‘Order and Progress’). The performance opened on the re-inauguration of one of the latest “museums” in Lisbon (not worth going into that), called MAAT. Although the performance lasted for only one night, it was then turned into an installation that occupied the space for an entire month. The “performance” consists in a group of men destroying seven vessels. The installation consisted on the wreckage of such vessels plus the sound of the happening itself. 

This is ‘Order and Progress’ third restitution. It first happened in Lima, Peru. On that occasion, the statement of the author starts with the following paragraph:

El emplazamiento en el extremo norte del Paseo de los Héroes Navales de un barco pesquero que será desmembrado poco a poco durante el periodo de exhibición funciona como una alegoría del desmantelamiento del universo simbólico y aspiraciones que la navegación encarna. El barco es fundamentalmente un símbolo de la aventura y el descubrimiento; pero también representa la esperanza del refugio o la posibilidad de sobrevivir en un ambiente hostil, es vehículo de viajes místicos y deidades, encarnación del poderío militar y comercial, de la conquista y la dominación. En el caso de esta embarcación particular, se trata de un recordatorio del papel fundamental que la pesca ha tenido en el desarrollo del litoral peruano a lo largo de más de cinco mil años, y del enfrentamiento económico y cultural de la pesca artesanal frente a la industrial. También subraya la importancia estratégica de los puertos de Lima –de ahí la razón de su ubicación crítica en el paseo de los héroes navales– tanto como base de intercambio cultural y escenario de conflictos militares. 

On its second happening, ‘Ordre et Progrès’ went indoors, inside the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, France. On that occasion, Zamora’s statement kept the same, yet in his site there’s a quote from someone else (not credited) that reads: 

De la performance de Héctor Zamora le soir du 2 mai 2016, ne subsistent que des débris de bois et de métal. Ils sont la trace des mouvements répétitifs et destructeurs d’une équipe de performeurs venue désassembler cinq navires de pêche en tenue de travail et casque de chantier. Un protocole simple, exécuté de façon aveugle, qui suffit à transformer l’espace d’exposition en un cimetière de bateaux.
Des embarcations de départ – des ready-mades grand format – aux squelettes d’arrivée, l’œuvre joue sur le rapport évolutif des formes à l’espace. Son aspect sculptural réside aussi dans le geste démolisseur. A travers lui, Héctor Zamora « dissout les promesses de l’imaginaire dont ces bateaux sont porteurs ». Une dissolution à coups de hache qui traduit la brutalité de la transformation du secteur de la pêche, la violence des bouleversements socio-économiques mondiaux. L’artiste court-circuite ainsi la vision de l’histoire pensée comme un progrès perpétuel d’Auguste Comte (1798-1857), philosophe français à qui le titre « Ordre et Progrès » est emprunté. Héctor Zamora prend ici la doctrine positiviste à rebrousse-poil : le progrès peut-il naître du désordre ?

Finally (or maybe not), ‘Ordem e Progresso’ happened in Lisbon, last March, also indoors. Portuguese MAAT curator Inês Grosso wrote about the performance/installation, trying to contextualize its appearance in Portuguese grounds: 

Of different kinds and with different features, the boats represent the traditional vessels of Portuguese fishing villages and cities, such as Sesimbra, Ericeira, Nazaré, Aveiro, and Figueira da Foz. The boats, autentic examples of Portuguese artisanal fishing, were selected because of their advanced state of degradation. They were all built between the late 1960s and the early 2000s. Some display national symbols that invoke the period of the Portuguese Discoveries; and others were baptized with names that refer to the traditions and mysticism of the fishing communities, or to the local culture and folklore.

to which she adds that

Zamora uses the configuration of the gallery to create a spatial boundary that separates the audience from the stage. The visitor is limited to the role of a passive spectator, watching as the fishing vessels are destroyed by a group of workers. Using manual tools such as mallets, hammers and axes, these actors/performers will turn these ships into pieces, as if they had been destroyed in a shipwreck or naval battle. Most of them immigrants themselves awaiting the opportunity of a job, the workers were hired through a Portuguese recruitment company. This particular detail is a pertinent and timely criticism of inequality in our contemporary world, of the inextricable relationship between the imperialist policies of the most powerful nations and the refugee crisis, but also of the way migration can be used as a tool and device for social transformation. In this perspective, there is a clear (and curious) parallel between these workers and the combatants in the original naumachias, who were mostly war prisoners, Christians, or slaves—the victims or Roman imperialism.
In Ordem e Progresso, body and action are politicized in an immersive performance, charged with theatricality and dramatism, and with a special focus on the poetics of the gesture. The presentation of this piece invites us to reflect upon the role of images, upon violence and upon the numbness of our contemporary society towards it. Much like in the games of the Roman world, this piece transforms the spectator into an abstract, passive, and contemplative subject, fascinated by the violent action of the destruction of the ships. […]

A series of question immediately arise from the curator’s statement, namely: Is it appropriate to say that Zamora uses the gallery space, in this context, when the performance originally happened in the streets of Lima, Peru? What is the purpose of calling the workers (who she then describes as migrants hired through a recruitment company) actors/performers? Does this mean that if I play a part in a play I immediately become an actress? If I show a piece in a gallery do I immediately become an artist? What adds value to the work, is it the institution?

Truth be said, this “performance” really annoys me, for I can’t see how the political and social dynamics become its content. If they were, shouldn’t it have a transformative power other than a conceptual one. Can we really say that body and action are politicized if what is “regenerated” is only the idea that progress arises from destruction? How does politics affect the workers (the black workers, one should add) after the piece is over? Are they only playing a role? So isn’t this just theater? How much were they paid? 

Instead, I think this functions just as another critic to the art world, but it is hypocritical, being that it is a repetition (no original value, besides the symbols evoked), it is happening inside a gallery space, in a museum that is financed by a huge corporation, it objectifies the worker’s body as strength value, and it ridicules the viewer. Where is the seriousness in all this? And the content? And how legitimate is that we keep making art jokes around the passiveness of the spectator?

Max Pinckers’ quest for style

Somehow Max Pinckerswork has never excited me much. I though it was too neat, too contrived, too pretty, too arranged, too controlled… After coming across a feature of Magnum Photos Now about Finding Your Documentary Photography Style and reading the words he chose to describe his approach to documentary photography, I went back to some of his projects. I see now what I had missed before: mainly, that the way he resorts to staging is a strategy to expose the contamination between what is ordinarily understood as facts and fiction.

In that article, author Laura Havlin writes that Pincksers’ thinking began to develop around questions of authenticity and goes on to quote his words: I’ve always been questioning, as a maker or as a photographer, the relationship with the subject matter and the images produced, and how far can they actually convey a form of truth.

Pinckers’ project Lotus, created in collaboration with visual artist Quinten De Bruyn, comes up as the example of how he questions the creation of a style in the context of documentary photography. Lotus is a project about Thailand’s transgender community, but it is also a vehicle to explore the very medium of photojournalism itself, so Havlin says.

What we were really interested in, says Pinckers, was the kind of thought behind why certain aesthetics are applied in documentary photography or photojournalism. What are the motivations behind making certain aesthetic choices when you’re actually there to report on a certain subject matter? Why do documentary images need to be pretty or beautiful or nice to look at? Even if the subject matter might be completely in conflict with this aesthetic? We chose Thailand’s Ladyboys because they have also gone through some kind of transformation; they have plastic surgery and turn from looking like a man to looking like a woman. You walk through the streets and sometimes you’re not quite sure if you are looking at a man or a woman. This is interesting because that’s exactly what we wanted to convey with our images as well: the viewer questions the authenticity of what they are looking at.

When Pickers goes on to describe how he and Bruyn worked on Lotus, at some point he says that the photographs depict spontaneous moments in the middle of very worked out sceneries, once again mistaking spontaneity for authenticity. His exact words are: All of a sudden, they started chatting to each other or would get up to go to the bathroom and then we would take the picture right at the moment when something spontaneous happened. We wanted to to achieve this very stylized, theatrical photographic aesthetic but at the same time capture something that we might not be able to direct or stage.

Although I obviously question his theoretical approach on authenticity, I wouldn’t dare doubt his choices, his approach, his quest for his originality, his own language, for he has managed to achieve a style. On the other hand, I miss a soul. It’s as if the photographs were imprisoned in their conditioned of being a photograph, not being able to take the plunge into an autonomous aesthetic dimension. I see the effort to trigger less controlled moments amidst the staging, as if the spontaneity of those untamed gestures could bring about some authenticity. But authenticity in what sense? Truth about the people and the environment they are photographing? You think?

What follows is a selection of photographs from the project Lotus.

Photogrphas appear as they are in Pinckers’ site, without subtitles.


≡ No room à l’hasard ≡

Excerpts of Brendan Cormiers’s essay No Interest in Reality, written for The New Institute’s exhibition, 1:1 Sets for Erwin Olaf and Bekleidung, Nov 11th 2013 – March 30th 2014. Full text here.

In the documentary, On Beauty and Fall, celebrated Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf states that he has no interest in reality. He laments the art world’s exaltation of the documentary photographer, who moves the viewer with earnest depictions of the ‘real world’, which in the end are often conceits of their own. Instead Olaf’s real world is his interior world, the world of his own fantasies. Loaded with ambiguous meaning, it’s a world where wallpaper drips with pathos, and curtains veil an exterior we’ll never encounter. Models reveal ambivalent expressions and all objects sit complicit in the montage: a carefully positioned phone is charged with anticipation of a call that never takes place.

Embedded in these images is a story about design, a story of theatricality and the idea of a constructed interior, for in these interiors representation blurs with reality. Perhaps unwittingly, Olaf resurrects the nineteenth century notion that architectural space should display and amplify the drama of life. In so doing his photographs suggest tools for design – the careful montage of stylistic references, expressive skins, and selective framing – that have been used in the past, and might be resurrected once again.

In Which Style Should We Photograph?

Style is a word inseparable from Olaf’s images. His work is characterized by the variety of historic styles that comprise his sets ¬– from the Norman Rockwell optimism of 1950s America [Rain], to a somber post-JFK 1960s [Grief], to the interbellum years of Germany [Berlin], to the ravages of war in sixteenth century Holland [The Siege and Relief of Leiden]. The ease with which Olaf moves through these styles recalls the practice of the nineteenth century architect, who, driven by the historicism and eclecticism of the time, was expected to recreate any number of styles – from Greek, to Roman, to Gothic, and so on – at the whim of his patron. This seemingly rudderless approach to aesthetics prompted Heinrich Hübsch in 1828 to ask the question: ‘In which style should we build? – a debate that would endure the century, with various architects advocating for one style over another. Gradually architecture would resolve this tension by muting and abstracting historic elements altogether, paving the way for the unadorned facades of twentieth century modernism.


Similarly, Olaf’s interiors aren’t employed as historical reenactments as such, but employ historic styles to evoke an idea or a feeling. Style is an expression, a mood-setter, and a signifier. For example, in Grief, each element in the set, and each color, acts as a reference that contributes to the melancholy of the title: The vertical lines made by the shadows of the drapes mimic the bars of a jail; juxtaposed with the optimism of the sleek modernist furnishing, referring to the resurgent postwar middle class. Meanwhile the Jackie Onassis haircuts and outfits recall the tragedy of the JFK assassination and the collective feeling of loss that the nation experienced. The montage of contradicting moods triggered by these signifiers creates a tension that forms the drama of each piece.


Life On Display

To view an Olaf photograph is also to enter into a world of multiple frames that guide our gaze and that of the actors. It is a reminder of how our interior spaces are constructed as such, full of gaze-directing cues. Your gaze falls upon a framed space often so intimate you feel as a voyeur. The actors in the scenario are also aware of the frames – the window looking out on the yard, the spotlighted furniture arrangement, the perfect table setting, or the camera lens staring right back at you. Works like Keyhole, are explicit in this voyeurism; with the actor’s back turned, you are free to stare without shame, but the framing is tight (as if through a keyhole) and the gaze is limited. In wider shots, such as in Hope, you are confronted with the model’s gaze, and made uncomfortable by the muted anticipation in their eyes.

Such notions of framing can also be drawn back to the nineteenth century in the works of Semper and Schinkel. They shared a common view that architecture is a frame that should accommodate human experience. Drawing from Schinkel’s experience with stage design, the frame was intended to catch the eye of the viewer and direct their attention to the drama of life. This was used to great effect in Schinkel’s paintings, especially to highlight the transition between the interior world and the outdoors. In these paintings the colonnade often serves as a frame through which the viewer’s gaze must pass to reach the landscape, moving from a closed space bounded by opaque materiality, into a space of daylight and distance. Unsurprisingly, the colonnade would later be used to great effect in his architecture. For instance in the Altes Museum, he covers the façade with a wide colonnade framing views out to the Lustgarten and the monumental buildings beyond. In the museum’s rotunda multiple frames are at play vying for your attention: the columns frame each statue, while an oculus plays a double role, framing a circular image of the sky, and directing your attention to the center with a casted beam of light.


ArtPulse 1-4167© Erwin Olaf, press clip, Art Pulse, 2009.

The Gaurdian312© Erwin Olaf, press clip, The Gaurdian.

British Journal of Photography, March 2010 1-417© Erwin Olaf, press clip, British Journal of Photography, 2012.

Liberation Next 02, May 2010200© Erwin Olaf, press clip, Liberation Next, 2010.

Los Angeles Times154© Erwin Olaf, press clip, Los Angeles Times, 2007.

The Wall Street Journal. 6 January 2015177© Erwin Olaf, press clip, The Wall Street Journal, 2015.

≡ ‘My work is about this, that and the other.’ Well, if you say so… ≡

It’s a given than when writing a statement about your work, you should explain what the process entailed and what you were trying to achieve. But should the artist explain to us what the project is really about? Isn’t that pretentious?

7.11.11© Jamie Diamond, 7.11.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

e© Jamie Diamond, 5.29.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

k© Jamie Diamond, 4.24.12, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

q© Jamie Diamond, 2.18.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

I don’t often write cynically about works I dislike or authors that have no interest to me, and this is no exception, for although the author here in question – Jamie Diamond – has both an approach and a style that alienates me, I can’t resist being interested in her motivations.

I saw Jamie’s work for the first time very recently, due to an article in Hyperallergic entitled An Outsider Art Born of Fantasy. It grabbed my attention because I study matters related to notions of ‘outsider art’, but once I started reading I realized it had nothing to do with ‘art brut’. The article deals with Diamond’s project Mother Love. The story is: while she was looking for a fake baby for the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother, she stumbled upon reborn dolls. Her statement on the aforementioned series goes like this

“In this series, I assume the role of subject and photographer and put on the mask of motherhood, dressing up in my mother’s clothes and interacting with Annabelle, a reborn doll. The project was inspired by and named after a diary I kept as a girl that documented the relationship with my own mother, written as a kind of rule sheet for later life. I started staging specific memories from my childhood, acting out recalled events and behaviors. Eventually the performance evolved into an exploration of the complexities surrounding the paradox of the mother/child relationship, investigating both its vernacular and art historical depictions, while mimicking and ignoring the traditional visual signifiers of motherhood. I’m interested in the fantasy of motherhood, the social structure of the relationship between mother and child, and the performance of inherited social and gender roles. Working in a variety of locations, both interiors and landscapes, I play out these scenarios with Annabelle for the camera, isolating specific idyllic and contradictory moments.”

In the article she explains that when she found reborn dolls, she also found herself fascinated by the community. Reborn Dolls are dolls that look a lot like real babies, which people buy and create in order to nurture them as if they were their own living child. It’s out of the ordinary, that’s for sure. And yes, it probably is a defense mechanism in response to some traumatic event, but how each one chooses to deal with such profound feelings is not for us to judge.

Ping 002© Jamie Diamond, Mother Ping, from the series Mother Love.

Kyal_16x20© Jamie Diamond, Mother Kyla, from the series Mother Love.

So Diamond then decided to make a new series about the Reborn Babies. She explains that “the only way I could fully understand this community and the art making that went into it, was to become a Reborner myself, and I did”. In her statement for this series – Mother Love:

“In this series, I am interested in blurring the distinctions between real and unreal and the living and the in-animate. I collaborated with an outsider art making community called the Reborners, a group of self-taught female artists who hand-make, collect and interact with hyper-realistic dolls. (…) The photographs engage with the tradition of portraiture, evoking classical sculptural busts that are at once familiar and strange. Working with the Reborn community has allowed me to explore the grey area between reality and artifice where relationships are constructed with inanimate objects, between human and doll, artist and artwork, uncanny and real. I have been engaged with this community now for four years and while working and learning from these women, I’ve become fascinated by the fiction and performance at the core of their practice and the art making that supports their fantasy.”

This apparent clash between the real and the fake, the genuine and the artificial, is mentioned in all of her work. Yes, she definitely has a clear drive and her own style, but the question is if she is being successful, as an artist, in conveying such complex dilemma of photographic authenticity. Are the images about that clash? Do the images trigger any sort of reflection about the way people are and the way they pretend to be? Could it be that the dominant theatricality of the photographs is destroying any potential for magic? Can the driving force of art – the secret -, survive such artificial, mediated and direct approach to people?

The series that interested me the most was Constructed Family Portraits, which refers to a traditional way of portraying familial relations and can remind us of Struth’s Family Portraits, that is, as photographic objects. Diamond’s statement goes as follows:

“In the Constructed Family Portrait series, I found strangers on the Internet and in public and invited them to meet me in rented hotel rooms and pose as artificial families for the camera. (…) The portraits are of normal people performing as themselves in an entirely new context; they intuitively follow the rules of the genre, and the group they form for the camera ascribes them an identity. The work explores the public image of family, themes of photographic truth, gender, class, culture and identity. As indicated by the titles of each work, each family is given the name of the hotel where the photograph was taken.”

The-Latham-Family-copy© Jamie Diamond, The Lathams, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.

The-Hilton-Family© Jamie Diamond, The Hiltons, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.

The-Seasons-Family© Jamie Diamond, The Seasons, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.

At first, what made an impression was the fact that she mentioned that the photographs represented such an array of complex themes: ‘public image of family’, ‘photographic truth’, ‘gender’, ‘class’, ‘culture and identity’. I guess if you tried to find more relevant subjects to contemporary photography in western societies, you couldn’t. These are all part of the drama of representation, be it photographic or not. Can they really fit into one series about constructed representations of families?

I’m reminded of a session of Family Therapy in which the therapist asked us to get up and position ourselves in the way we thought would best represent how we related to each other. It was terrible, on the spot there’s only room for false gestures and the only thing that ‘picture’ can say is: we know what families are supposed to look like; we know how this ‘picture’ is supposed to be’; and we are unable to relate to each other in the way you want us to. In the end, the only thing this therapeutic approach manages to do is make us feel like outsiders, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Back to Diamond’s Constructed Family Portraits I struggle to find an interesting way in, unlike the majority of critics. Take, for example, this Phaidon article about the series I Promise to Be a Good Mother, in which the author (not signed) compares some of her photographs to Jeff Wall’s: “In places, the series evokes the photographs of Jeff Wall, with its formal composition of figures in landscape.” Really? You think? Diamond and Wall are opposites and it’s not because of any small aspect but because Wall’s quest is the absorptive mode and Diamond’s is the theatrical mode,* meaning the first is excited for a sort of representation where figures are immersed in their virtual world, not aware of the viewer or their relation to their image; the second is excited by the performative aspect of the medium and not the level of veracity of the events depicted.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview for Dummy Magazine, by Oliver Gehrs:

OG: Aren’t those families anachronistic?

JD: I’m examining photographic rhetoric concentrating specifically on the family portrait and the work is in conversation with the history of portraiture, both commercial and classical. It’s not just about the family portrait either; it’s about our relationship to photography and the role it plays in our lives. I’m interested in the language of portraiture, in the performance, and in our innate fluency in its codes and gestures. Each stranger knew how to perform so convincingly yet none of these people had anything to do with each other. They were playing themselves in this unfamiliar context. Also the scale is very important, I want you to be confronted by this portrait, that’s why they are printed life size. Family portraits are never on this scale; they are usually of a very specific size. I wanted to take this moment out of the vernacular context that it’s usually part of.


OG: Why do we see family-relations in your work, where no relations are?

JD: I think it has something to do with our relationship to photography and our photographic conditioning. We know what to expect when we see a family portrait and aren’t prepared to be deceived. Even after you know that these are all strangers I still love the associations you make when looking at these portraits. I’m interested in how we receive images and our belief in photographic truth. I believe we are presenting ourselves one way, but the camera reveals something else, I love that.

* More on the subject in Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, (2008).

≡ The problem with expectations in the context of documentary photography (Part II) ≡

qiermpo7kpxgttqwphvm© Giovanni Troilo, J. keeps his gun hidden in a box in the woods of Bois du Cazier. This is more secure than keeping them at home since he regularly gets visits from the police., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

fpudamunvpv5hxejln5y© Giovanni Troilo, Gas supply tubes run along the houses built near the steel factories of Charleroi. Before the electric upgrade of the blast furnace, these tubes used to provide the energy needed for this operation., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

It’s the discussion everyone is having in the photography community since the 2015 World Press Photo awards were announced: Giovanni Troilo won the contemporary issues category with a visual essay about the town of Charleroi, in Belgium, entitled “The Dark Heart of Europe“. In the official site, one can read the following description “Charleroi, a town near Brussels, has experienced the collapse of industrial manufacturing, rising unemployment, increasing immigration and outbreak of micro-criminality. The roads, once fresh and neat, appear today desolated and abandoned, industries are closing down, and vegetation grows in the old industrial districts.”

So far so good, but the controversy started once claims arose about the performative nature of the photographs. Apparently, italian photographer Giovanni Troilo staged some of the photos in order to better convey a feeling of decadence of Europe. Having seen the photos, Charleroi’s mayor Paul Magnette sent a letter to  World Press Photo claiming that the award be removed on grounds of the essay not constituting a documentary portrait of Charleroi. Excerpts of such letter are all over the web. At one point Magnette writes:

“He [Giovanni] claims to be doing investigative journalism; a photo essay reflecting a simple reality. But this is far from being the case: the falsified and misleading captions, the travesty of reality, the construction of striking images staged by the photographer are all profoundly dishonest and fail to respect the codes of journalistic ethics. In our opinion, this work does not comply with the objective of the competition.”

cn5i37clib1qzwvnchpk© Giovanni Troilo, Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons, from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

This particular image above is accompanied by a caption saying “Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons”, however the author explains that the photograph was staged with a friend’s car and his cousin inside. His approach is not only questionable because of its theatricality, but mainly because it is dishonest: the captions do not correspond to the reality of the singular and individual daily life in Charleroi, instead they are used in order to apply to a virtual (and apparently universal) idea of what the darkness in Europe looks like.

ygasyk3sx6ajpvklf7rv© Giovanni Troilo, Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons, from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

This image shows  Philippe Genion as an obese and decadent man. The caption reads: “Philippe lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the town.” Not that we needed to read mayor Magnette’s response to understand the inauthenticity of such an image, for it is obviously overstaged and sensationalist, but he adds to the confusion by saying:

“Mr. G. is a prominent figure, earthy and very attached to his region. Far from the image given him by photographer who seems to have wanted to build his image by referring to the ‘neurotic obesity’ mentioned in the introductory text of Giovanni Troilo.”

Journalist Caroline Lallemand (for Le Vif) interviewed belgian photographer Thomas Van Den Driessche about the controversy and at one point he says (my translation):

“Let’s take the example of corpulent man posing in his interior space. The dramatic lighting of the scene and the caption of the photo suggest that this person is a recluse inside his own home to escape violence in his neighborhood. This is actually Philippe Genion, a well-known personality in Charleroi who loves posing topless. He lives in a popular neighborhood, but relatively peaceful. His house is also a wine bar. So we are far from the image referring to the “neurotic obesity” conveyed by the photographer. Philippe Genion has also given several specific details about Troilo’s team mise-en-scène on its Facebook page. He specified that the photographer had clearly told him that he “was not doing a documentary, but a photography project”. For me, it’s another serious deontological mistake to have presented his work in such a way.”

The issue is far from over. Troilo is yet to respond to mayor Magnette’s letter and the World Press Photo jury is expected to explain their position regarding the story at hands. But what is really expected? That photography be a document of reality when we know it to be always subjective? That near-documentary photographs be discredited by their theatricality even though they often present a better visual understanding of a particular social reality? That manipulation be 100% excluded from photojournalist practice, even if the barriers between documentary and photojournalism keep being blurred? Or may it be that our problem concerns not the photographer, not the images, but the man who comes forth as an author? May it be that the core of the problem deals with the overall authority of a man’s words and his authenticity?

evtm9oyflksjfrgnbyje© Giovanni Troilo, The newest and tallest building in Charleroi is the 75-meter-high police station., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

kg75csiwtze5hdgyo25h© Giovanni Troilo, Vadim, a painter who uses live models, creates a work inspired by an existing painting., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

≡ (re)Discovering the work of Gregory Crewdson ≡

When I first saw Gregory Crewdson’s photographs, roughly 10 years ago, they didn’t appeal to me. Aesthetically, they still don’t. Throughout the years, in classes and other events, there were various encounters with his lynchian universe, but my immediate reactions weren’t changed and beyond my interest in some of the technical issues called forth by his process, I never gave it much chance. Having said this, two pictures stayed with me: one being Ophelia, and the other Woman in Flowers (sew below). I now admit they may have influenced me further than my conscious will admit.

Untitled (Ophelia), 2001© Gregory Crewdson, Ophelia, 2001.

woman in flowers, 1999© Gregory Crewdson, Woman in Flowers, 1999.

What I disliked about Crewdson’s work (and still do) is his perfection: his absolute attention to detail and obsession with the authenticity of the sceneries; the meticulous control of light; the repetition of a cold, dark, old and decadent human figure. All this amounts to such a perfect theatricality that the realm of reality (and that of imagination) is excluded from the picture: that which is supposed to enclose all the possibilities.

Errors, slips, and an overall lack of control, do not participate in Crewdson’s work, even if he feels otherwise. And because of this perfectly staged theatricality, and although every single image is grounded on an open narrative, I feel stuck in is visual language, stuck in his interiority, and unable to relate to his anguished subjects, with whom I should easily empathize.

New fact: I changed my mind about Crewdson after recently having watched Ben Shapiro’s documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012). Although I still find no punctum in Crewdson’s photographs (his latest work in Cinecittà being an exception), now I can contemplate the man who authored such a work. Does this affect my relation with the photographs themselves? Well, yes and no.

The documentary follows Crewdson during the making of his biggest project to date – Beneath the Roses (2002-2008) – which is intercalated with an autobiographical account that helps contextualize his artistic sensibility. This narrative directly relates and immediately adds to the deeper layers of the photographs, yet my eye is still  caught in his perfectly absent encompassing of human lives in their everydayness.

Formally, the vivid use of colors, the sharpness of architectural elements and the rigidity of the framing, all accentuate the drowning of the image into itself, obliterating one of the major specificities of the photographic medium: that a photograph is a surface. A surface that is able to show (and mirror) the surface of things, and in doing so, being able to trigger a dive into as many imaginary layers as one can think of.

Jeff Wall, who uses theatricality in a completely different way, to whom the absorptivity of the subjects within the image is crucial, is an important reference for Crewdson. And although Wall has a highly coherent body of work, some of his photographs are less successful than others. The image below, Insomnia, is a good example of how the performative nature of theatricality can take over an image and ruin the art of deceiving that is so intrinsic to theatricality, open narratives and imagination.

Insomnia, 1994© Jeff Wall, Insomnia, 1994.

Wall is famous for his concept of “Near Documentary”, namely, the ability to enact and capture an event to the point that it looks naturally occurring. But in this particular photograph there’s none of that. Instead, there is too much stillness, no dynamics, a lack of credibility and an uncomfortable proximity between the eye of the camera and that of the insomniac man under the table. The perspective, particularly the way the cabinets stumble upon the framing, not only exposes the stage (which wouldn’t be a problem per se), but also confine our attention to such staginess, disrupting our empathy with the simplicity of the everyday drama depicted in the picture.

This staginess I was referring to can be encountered in Crewdson’s work. Both the images below can serve to illustrate how now and then he seems to loose perspective and give us nothing but the stage: the sceneries, the actors, the performance, the lights, the camera, and no action. An alienated representation of a theatrical moment between takes.

Untilted, 2005© Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 2005.

Untitiled (Back Yard Romance), 2004© Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (The Back Yard Romance), 2004.

At one point in the documentary, while we’re showed the image just above, Crewdson says: “My pictures are a moment between moments, really. And, I think twilight is sort of a beautiful kind of metaphor for that.” As implied before, I am unable to comprehend how can this be a moment between an imaginary before and a possible after, because there is no sense of time, no account for the present tense or untimely beauty: the figures lack an overall engagement with the atmosphere, each other or the image itself, and end up being overshadowed by the choices of framing and their bodies position. Oddly enough, Crewdson’s Untitled (The Back Yard Romance) reminds me of Jan Saudek, who mastered the art of photographing people performing love and sexuality. And on that note, here’s one of Saudek’s pictures that came to mind.

Pieta No. 1, 1971© Jan Saudek, Pieta No. 1, 1971.

┐ Adad Hannah └

© Adad Hannah, Safari #2, from the project Safari, 2011

“Safari is a collaboration between film director Denys Arcand and artist Adad Hannah produced for the exhibition Big Bang, which celebrates the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ 150th Anniversary and the opening of a new pavilion.
The set for Safari is the Safari Seating Environment designed by the Florence based Archizoom Associati in 1968 and produced by Poltronova. Archizoom was founded by a group of architects and designers in 1966 and dissolved in 1974.
Arcand and Hannah developed a 7-minute scene that takes place in the back of a nightclub in the middle of the 1980’s. The scene revolves around the Safari Seating Environment, its sleek white sides and leopard print covered seats providing the stage for the set of actions performed on it. The actors featured in Safari are all employees of the museum with no formal acting training. After workshopping the scene for two days Arcand and Hannah shot the same 7-minute sequence from six different angles. Each actor had a set trajectory, performing certain actions at a set place in the timeline and remaining as still as possible the rest of the time. The result is a staccato and haunting recording of a single scene performed over and over for the camera.”

© Adad Hannah, Lunge, from the project Traces, 2010

“In 2007, Michelle Jacques, assistant curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, contacted me about creating a new project for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. I proposed taking over Toronto’s oldest jazz bar, The Rex, to create a temporal shift by staging possible localized histories within the aging interior. The project was called Traces. Several weeks before the one night event I shot a series of over twenty videos of tableaux vivants arranged around the patchwork of tables that make up the sprawling bar. During Nuit Blanche the videos were shown in the very location where they were made, creating a dialogue between photography, video, and performance. The installation lasted from 7pm on the night of September 29th, 2007 until 7am the next morning. This selection includes four photographic details as well as four autonomous videos.”

Two Views, Installation with 2 HD videos, 2 plasma screens, 2 stuffed birds, 2 wooden crates, acrylic paint, and other materials. Installed at DAÏMÕN / AXENÉO7, Gatineau, 2011

“Making a self-contained project that integrates both the artwork and the production of the artwork is something I have been working towards for a while. I am interested in the way video and photography bridge index and fiction, the here and now and the same place at a slightly different time.
The two crates each contain everything needed for the installation, the windows, the branch with the stuffed bird, the plasma screen, the wooden stands, the costumes, the book the model is holding, and the media player used to play the video. The videos were shot inside the same crates they are then exhibited on – the plasma screen simply replacing the camera.”

More of Adad’s work here

┐ roots & fruits #7 – Inês Beja └

© Inês Beja, The Roaring

© Inês Beja, Untitled #3, from the series Jumping at Shadows

Inês is a chameleon or, as she puts it, a shape-shifter. From my point of view what she is now is a creative force: obsessive, eager to learn, aiming for the perfect tool, the perfect dress, the perfect light, the perfect shot. I believe these are arguments enough to keep an eye on her and see where all this passion (borderline destructive force?) can take her.

Her work made me think of a written piece of work, so instead of dragging on parallels between her work and that of self-portrayed women in the history of photography, here it is:

“(…)The initial idea that images contributed to women’s alienation from their bodies and from their sexuality, with an attendant hope of liberation and recuperation, gave way to theories of representation as symptom and signifier of the way problems posed by sexual difference under patriarchy could be displaced onto the feminine.(…)and while feminist critics turned to popular culture to analyse these meanings, artists turned to theory, juxtaposing images and ideas, to negate dominant meanings and,slowly and polemically, to invent different ones.

(…)The juxtaposition begins to refer to a ‘surface-ness’, so that nostalgia begins to dissolve into unease.An overinsistence on surface starts to suggest that it might be masking something or other that should be hidden from sight, and a hint of another space starts to lurk inside a too plausible facade.(…)The sense of surface now resides, not in the female figure’s attempt to save her face in a masquerade of femininity, but in the model’s subordination to, and imbrication with, the texture of the photographic medium itself.

(…)For Freud, fetishism is particularly significant (apart, that is, from his view that it ‘confirmed the castration complex’) as a demonstration that the psyche can sustain incompatible ideas, at one and the same time,through a process of disavowal. Fetishistic disavowal acknowledges the possibility of castration (represented by the female, penis-less, genital)and simultaneously denies it. Freud saw the coexistence of these two contradictory ideas, maintained in a single psyche, as a model for the ego’s relation to reality: the ‘splitting of the ego’, which allowed two parallel, but opposed, attitudes to be maintained in uneasy balance.(…) This ‘oscillation effect’ is important to postmodernism. The viewer looks, recognizes a style, doubts, does a double take, then recognizes that the style is a citation, and meanings shift and change their reference like shifting perceptions of perspective from an optical illusion.

excerpt from Laura Mulvey’s article A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman

Inês’s portraits can be seen here

┐ Xaviera Simmons └

© Xaviera Simmons, One Day and Back Then, 2007

© Xaviera Simmons, Landscape (2 Women), 2007

© Xaviera Simmons, If We Believe In Theory, 2009

“Simmons, as an artist, doubles down. She captures the fiction/truth dialectic as well as anyone, disarticulating assumptions about the quietly composed and staged images she makes. She’s a Brecht of the photographic endeavor. In her work, Simmons is not so much documenting the performance before the camera, but the performance itself. In one image from the series If We Believe in Theory, Simmons captures a young girl in the woods dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. It’s an example of Simmons using the suggestion of performance to capture the explicit and contradictory nature of individuality. Her subject becomes herself, and also a dismembered characterization of what we’re accustomed to look at. Still, it is not simply Simmons’s understanding of the imagistic theater of photography that is useful, but her way of using form to acknowledge that image is at the center of the creative construction of collective and personal histories. Simmons is a lexicographer who fuses live material and conceptual conceit; she deconstructs and retains a relation to specific times and places. Perhaps paradoxically, she often achieves this through unabashedly excessive detail, like in One Day and Back Then (Standing), where her character stands in a field of sea reeds in blackface, looking out at us, wearing all black (including stiletto boots), ready for a night out on the town.”

excerpt of an article by Adam Pendleton, in Bomb. continue reading here